OTTAWA — Maybe Paul Byron’s three-month absence due to a knee injury was too quickly glossed over as a reason for why the Montreal Canadiens all but destroyed their playoff hopes from mid-November to mid-February.
Perhaps we can throw away the “maybe” part and just go with definitely. Because it became patently obvious that Jonathan Drouin’s lengthy absence with a wrist injury, suffered in the same Nov. 15 game that Byron went down in, was going to get significantly more attention — with Drouin getting off to an electric start to the season and Byron looking like a shell of the player he had been since coming over through waivers in the fall of 2015.
But, the point is, we should have known better. And by “we,” I mean all of us who watch the Canadiens play every night. Because we all knew Byron, an assistant captain, was a glue guy for this team. And he had earned the benefit of the doubt he wasn’t being given.
The Ottawa native’s 69 goals and 131 points in his first 281 games with the team, his back-to-back 20-goal seasons and 15 goals scored in 56 games last year, probably should’ve been weighed more heavily against his poor performance over the first 19 games this season. Because as Max Domi put it on Saturday — after Byron helped him score two goals and added one himself in Montreal’s 3-0 win over the Ottawa Senators — Byron is a player who does it all.
“He works hard every single shift,” Domi said. “He can make plays, he can block shots, he kills penalties; he literally does everything you can ask of a player. So he’s the most underrated player in the entire NHL.”
We’ll concede that last bit is (major) hyperbole. But all that other stuff is why Byron was missed so dearly by the Canadiens.
They were 11-5-3 with him, even while he was largely ineffective, and they went 16-21-5 without him.
“Watching each game, analyzing the play, seeing things happen on TV and watching the game from a different angle gives you different perspective,” Byron said. “You see little things in the game where I thought maybe I could have helped the team with. Little areas, little backchecks, forechecks, going to the net — just such little things people take for granted…”
Those are the details that immediately went awry for the Canadiens in November.
It didn’t help that, for the rest of that month, Carey Price looked nothing like the guy who made 30 saves against Ottawa on Saturday. His game falling apart right as the rest of the team’s game did was a deadly combination.
But as Price predictably found his mojo in December — he’s played 21 games and put up the NHL’s third-best save percentage (.927) since the first day of that month — the Canadiens were still slow to recover.
Meanwhile, Byron was expected to miss roughly four weeks after a minor knee procedure on Nov. 19. But as he pushed his way back, something just didn’t feel right.
The doctors shut him down and it crushed him.
“I wanted to help this team,” Byron said. “I felt each loss probably harder than anybody. I felt that even though I wasn’t playing well, the team was winning. Everything was going well, it was a matter of time (before he found his game) and going into that stretch, seeing the losses, I felt like that was really the opportunity — I could have made a difference in those games. And not being able to do that, it really stung.”
Is there any doubt Byron’s made a difference since returning three games ago?
He was a big part of the reason the Canadiens got the 3-1 lead in Detroit they inevitably blew to the Red Wings on Tuesday. It was his backcheck early in the game, stripping Andreas Athanasiou of the puck, which helped get Nate Thompson the first goal.
Byron built on that in Washington on Thursday, playing 20 shifts and helping Montreal to a 4-3 overtime win over the Capitals.
And then, on Saturday, he was in the middle of all the action — earning an assist on Domi’s first goal, making the play to create havoc in Ottawa’s end before goaltender Craig Anderson flipped the puck onto Domi’s stick for his second goal, and burying a pass from Ilya Kovalchuk for the all-important and backbreaking third goal of the game.
With three points in three games, Byron now has just one point less than he had over his first 19.
But he doesn’t care about any of that, and that’s part of the reason he’s such a key piece of this team.
“These next stretch of games here, I’m just going to play my heart out and try to help this team win each game,” Byron said. “We’ll see what happens.”
We’d be beyond shocked if it got the Canadiens where they’d like to go — they’re still far out of the playoff picture with 18 games remaining — but there’s little doubt he’ll help their chances more than he’ll hurt them.
And while it didn’t seem essential for Shea Weber to play on a busted ankle two weeks ahead of the earliest date doctors suggested he’d be able to, for Drouin to continue playing through the pain of his wrist injury and a recent ankle sprain, for Gallagher to push through a leg injury suffered last weekend and for Price to continue starting every game, it felt crucial for Byron to come back and show exactly what he’s showing right now.
“He’s such a good skater and he’s on the puck all the time,” Canadiens coach Claude Julien said. “To me, it’s pretty impressive he’s missed that amount of time and he comes back and he has that impact that quickly. It’s a credit to him, and it just seems that when he’s on the ice he just seems to make everybody else around him better.”
Byron could have helped more than we all figured he could while he was out. We should realize how much he can help moving forward, beyond the rest of this season.